Here’s Where the 2024 Presidential Candidates Stand on Higher Education

Joe Biden and Donald Trump have very different views on key higher education issues impacting current and former students.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Updated on July 10, 2024
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  • Joe Biden and Donald Trump have very different views on key higher education issues like student loan debt forgiveness, accreditation, and DEI.
  • Biden has proposed plans for free community college, while Trump has suggested opening a free online university.
  • Biden has seen success in discharging federal student loans, while Trump has been an opponent of student debt relief.
  • Both candidates faced setbacks in their plans for higher education during their times in office.

Higher education issues will no doubt be a prominent topic during this year’s campaigns, especially in light of last year’s news regarding affirmative action and student loan forgiveness.

With that in mind, it’s useful to compare how the two primary presidential candidates — Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump — feel about some prominent discussion points in higher education. Views on issues like college affordability, student debt, accreditation, and DEI may be what sway voters to one side or another.

Let’s dig into what Biden and Trump think about these various topics.

College Affordability

Tuition and fees have skyrocketed in recent years, leaving many wondering how each candidate will address the issue if reelected.

Joe Biden — Free Community College, Expanded Pell Grant

President Biden campaigned on the promise of free community college, but has so far been unable to deliver on that promise.

His loftiest proposal came as part of his 2024 budget. It was there he put forth two plans for free college: One would have cost $90 billion to fund four years of free community college for all Americans, while the other would set aside $500 million to establish tuition-free community college at institutions that apply for a grant.

Neither proposal gained much traction, however, and the federal government seems no closer to passing free community college now than it did before Biden took office.

One college affordability area in which Biden has seen success is in raising the maximum Pell Grant award.

The maximum Pell Grant award has grown from $6,495 when Biden took office to $7,395 in the latest budget, a 13.9% increase. He proposed increasing the maximum award by another $750 in his 2025 budget proposal, which would constitute a 25.4% increase since taking office if adopted.

Still, Biden is a long way from reaching his goal of doubling the maximum Pell Grant award by 2029.

Donald Trump — Proposed Free Online University

Former President Trump put out his idea for a free, online university program he dubbed The American Academy.

In a video message on Nov. 1, he laid out his plan for an open-access program that would be free of wokeness and jihadism. His message lacked details for how such a university would function, but he did add that it would be paid for by taxing, fining, and suing private university endowments.

Trump also promised that any credentials awarded through the American Academy would be recognized by the federal government and government contractors. People can also earn the full and complete equivalent of a bachelor’s degree from the American Academy, he said.

The messaging, however, centered on how this program would be apolitical.

We spend more money on higher education than any other country, and yet they're turning our students into communists and terrorists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions, Trump said. We can't let this happen.

College affordability seemingly wasn’t a priority for Trump during his time in office.

The maximum Pell Grant award was $5,920 prior to Trump taking office. It rose to $6,495 by the time he left office, which is a 9.7% increase. When you adjust for inflation, however, the purchasing power of the Pell Grant program decreased by 1.6% over the course of his presidency, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Trump also recently suggested dissolving the Department of Education (ED), which could jeopardize financial aid programs.

Student Loan Debt Forgiveness

Student loan debt is at an all-time high, but there are differing opinions on how the federal government should approach this issue.

Joe Biden — Piecemeal Forgiveness After Supreme Court Failure

President Biden’s track record on student loan forgiveness is expansive but headlined by his failure to apply widespread forgiveness in mid-2023.

Biden originally planned to wipe up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for individuals earning less than $125,000 a year or couples earning less than $250,000. The federal government would erase up to $20,000 for borrowers who received a Pell Grant while in college.

The U.S. Supreme Court halted that plan in June in a 6-3 decision.

Biden is currently working on a “Plan B” debt forgiveness action that would be more limited in scope.

Still, despite shortcomings in widespread debt relief, the Biden administration has successfully discharged $143.6 billion in federal student loans for 3.96 million borrowers since taking office. He has done so mostly through fixes to the income-driven repayment (IDR) program, fixes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and ad hoc forgiveness to victims of predatory, for-profit institutions.

Donald Trump — Opposes Debt Forgiveness in Most Instances

Former President Trump is clearly not a fan of student loan forgiveness.

Trump celebrated the defeat of Biden’s widespread debt relief plan in a June campaign event.

Today, the Supreme Court also ruled that President Biden cannot wipe out hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, in student loan debt, he said at the time, which would have been very unfair to the millions and millions of people who paid their debt through hard work and diligence.

He highlighted that the three justices he appointed to the Supreme Court all ruled against Biden’s debt forgiveness plan.

ED also halted the processing of borrower defense applications during his administration. Borrower defense is an avenue available for borrowers seeking debt relief due to predatory behavior from their college.

That’s not to say Trump never made any moves to grant student debt relief.

In 2019, Trump directed ED to remove barriers so that veterans with severe disabilities could see debt relief more easily. The move was expected to impact 25,000 veterans who previously didn’t qualify.

Accreditation

College accreditation agencies oversee the higher education system in the U.S. Both sides of the aisle seemingly agree those agencies are failing students, but they cannot find common ground on a solution.

Joe Biden — In the Midst of Major Change

The Biden administration is currently making substantive changes to the U.S. accreditation system.

ED wrapped up negotiated rulemaking with higher education stakeholders regarding proposed regulatory changes to the accreditation system in early March. The main proposals ED put forward, which some stakeholders downvoted, included:

  • Forcing accreditation agencies to institute minimum student achievement standards
  • Prohibitions on who can serve on an agency’s board to avoid conflicts of interest

Even without consensus, the Biden administration will likely move forward with this planned proposal. However, it's likely that no new rule will be official until July 2025, which means his proposal could get tossed before it goes into effect if he loses reelection.

Donald Trump — “You’re Fired”

Trump is planning a complete overhaul of the college accreditation system.

In a May 2023 campaign video, Trump vowed to fire many — potentially all — existing accreditation agencies.

When I return to the White House, I will fire the radical left accreditors that have allowed our colleges to become dominated by Marxist maniacs and lunatics, he said.

He added that the federal government would then accept new accreditors to impose new standards over colleges. Those new accreditors would also be tasked with removing all Marxist diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucrats, he said.

Some aspects of this plan are seemingly impossible without major legislative action.

Eddy Conroy, senior advisor with the education policy program at New America, recently told BestColleges that the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) is the agency that oversees accrediting agencies. NACIQI is the only organization that can strip an accreditor of its power, and members of NACIQI’s board are appointed by ED, the House of Representatives, and the Senate on a rolling basis.

Additionally, current law prohibits ED from setting standards for accreditation agencies, he said.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on college campuses has become a lightning rod issue over the past five years. The campaign trail promises to ignite more debate on the topic.

Joe Biden — A Hands-Off Approach

Biden’s lasting legacy of DEI issues may be the defeat his administration suffered in the U.S. Supreme Court regarding affirmative action.

The court banned the consideration of race in college admissions in June 2023. The fight against affirmative action pre-dated his administration, but it was during his presidency that saw an end to 50 years of precedent. His chosen solicitor general argued the case for affirmative action before the court, and while that argument ultimately fell short, some predicted it was destined to fail due to the makeup of the court.

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar was, however, able to successfully argue to have military academies excluded from the court’s decision.

The Biden administration also recommended alternatives to race-conscious college admissions soon after the decision.

Biden has largely avoided culture war debates about DEI programs on college campuses. His administration has, however, consistently proposed funding increases for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

He also plans to widen Title IX to ban discrimination based on gender identity.

Donald Trump — Opponent of Critical Race Theory, Affirmative Action

Trump has become a staunch opponent of critical race theory (CRT). He often uses this one-time academic phrase to refer to any discussions of race or racism in classrooms.

Students in our universities are inundated with [CRT], he said during a late-2020 speech. This is a Marxist document holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed.

He banned federal agencies from holding trainings about systemic racism while in office. He also banned divisive concepts in federally funded programs.

Some colleges and universities suspended their DEI offices and programming as a result of this executive order. These institutions worried they could lose access to federal funding and that students could lose out on federal financial aid if their DEI offices remained.

Trump celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to ban the consideration of race in college admissions, otherwise known as affirmative action.

People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded, Trump said on Truth Social. This is the ruling everyone was waiting and hoping for and the result was amazing.

Trump vowed in May to direct the Department of Justice to pursue federal civil rights cases against schools that continue to engage in racial discrimination if reelected.

He is also an opponent of transgender college students being able to compete in sports based on their gender identity.

Trump has taken a slightly different stance when it comes to inclusion for international students.

In a June podcast appearance, he said international students who graduate from a U.S. university should receive a green card to remain in the country. His campaign later clarified that only skilled graduates who can “make significant contributions to America” will be allowed to stay in the country, and only after "the most aggressive vetting process in U.S. history.”